What’s in our soil, and what it means for us
12 November 2021
Dr Emma Sharp has taken home two awards from the School of Environment for her work with Soilsafe Aotearoa.
Dr Emma Sharp has been interested in home garden soils since she came across a newspaper article about blood lead levels in domestic chickens in Sydney.
Emma is a geographer in the School of Environment and a Principal Investigator at Te Pūnaha Matatini, a Centre of Research Excellence hosted by the University of Auckland.
When her environmental chemist colleague Dr Melanie Kah approached her about starting up a local version of an Australian project testing domestic soil for metal contaminants, Emma raced to her office to grab the newspaper clipping that had been pinned there for several years.
"I ran and got the newspaper article and waved it in front of Melanie and said 'I’ve been interested in this for a really long time!'" says Emma. "It turned out that it was the same research unit, and I said 'I've got all kinds of ideas for this. If I'm involved, we can make this true to Aotearoa – let's look at it from all angles.'"
"And so Soilsafe Aotearoa was born. It's a project of diverse soil values. We’re thinking about community values, public education, Indigenous perspectives, artistic interpretations, and things that are beyond economics – which is how soil is usually considered in Aotearoa and around the world."
Emma recently received the 2021 Research Communication Award from the School of Environment at the University of Auckland for her work with Soilsafe. She also took home the Early Career Research Award, and says that her association with Te Pūnaha Matatini and engagement work with Soilsafe were cited as reasons for this award.
"The way that I gained my engagement skills in the first place is being associated with things like Te Pūnaha Matatini Engagement Incubators and the wide variety of different people that we engage with at Te Pūnaha Matatini."
A mainstay of Soilsafe is an ongoing testing programme, in which members of the public send in samples of soil from key places in their gardens to be tested for a suite of eight heavy metals. The results are returned with guidance about how people can modify the ways they interact with soil to reduce exposure to any contaminants that might have been detected.
Soilsafe's lab at GNS Dunedin was inundated with soil samples after the project was mentioned on TVNZ’s Sunday show, and they have now processed over 2,000 samples.
Emma and Melanie are interested in patterns of soil contamination in locations close to main roads, due to the legacies of leaded petrol. They are also exploring a sociodemographic correlation to less well maintained houses that have peeling lead paint.
Other data sources include questionnaires and interviews about people’s values regarding gardens and gardening in Aotearoa over the COVID-19 lockdown period in early 2020.
"We get the sense that people got into their gardens a lot more during lockdown," says Emma. "Gardens were safe spaces, but they were also spaces where people could turn their attention to something else and nurture and care for something in a world that was feeling challenging."
For me, the most important thing is genuinely connecting with community
organisations to make sure our work is community led, and useful for
Te Pūnaha Matatini has funded two Soilsafe events in Takapuna and Rānui to engage children with the values of soil. Emma made sure that engagement was central to Soilsafe from the very start using Te Pūnaha Matatini’s engagement laundromat.
"Te Pūnaha Matatini has been a really fantastic support for the Soilsafe programme," she says.
At the engagement events, participants learned about soil from Emma and Melanie, enjoyed hands-on experience with soil science through microscopes and worm farms, and engaged in soil values through the work of artists Nicole Johnson and Ekarasa Doblanovic and photographer Shona Dey.
Te Pūnaha Matatini has also just provided seed funding for Emma and Melanie to develop Soilsafe Kids, which will provide interdisciplinary and multicultural teaching and learning about soil’s scientific and societal values, engaging school children and their communities in a holistic approach to soil science and soil science research.
"Soilsafe is flourishing," says Emma. "It's great."
"We’ve had some amazing media pickup and interest from community organisations. For me, the most important thing is genuinely connecting with community organisations to make sure our work is community led, and useful for them."